Dear Maman: Rob Kapilow makes music with an iconic sculpture

“My best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider. She could also defend herself, and me, by refusing to answer ‘stupid,’ inquisitive, embarrassing, personal questions.”

Louise Bourgeois on her sculpture Maman

The mother of the Franco-American artist Louise Bourgeois died while the artist was at university at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1932. The death prompted her own attempt at suicide. Her father, who was a domineering philanderer, was a focus of Bourgeois’ anger for her entire life.

The loss of the mother she loved deeply affected her for her entire life and motherhood became a focus of her art including in her best known work, the massive bronze, stainless steel and marble sculpture of a spider carrying her eggs. A version of this piece has become an iconic artwork in Ottawa, standing outside the National Gallery of Canada for the past decade and a half. In the summer, it is commonplace to see tourists taking selfies with the work at all hours of the day.

There is much wrapped up in the work for someone with a curious mind to explore. That certainly describes the composer, conductor, music historian and raconteur Rob Kapilow, best known in Ottawa for his What Makes It Great explorations of famous pieces of music held during the annual Chamberfest.

Indeed the statue is at the centre of a musical project the festival and Kapilow have undertaken to mark the 25th anniversary of the festival. It will premiere in 2019 at the end of the anniversary celebration. To that end Kapilow has immersed himself deeply into her life.

“Bourgeois did a lot of spider sculptures. The spider was a big theme late in her life,” he said. The big ones are an outgrowth of earlier much smaller pieces, including one which contains a collection of mementoes from her childhood which was central to her art.

“I’m dealing with permissions from the Louise Bourgeois estate to take pictures of Maman to put on our social media and our website to announce upcoming town halls in Ottawa and for a new book that I am writing on the Great American Songbook composers.”

Rob Kapilow. Photo: Peter Schaaf.

He’s dealing with huge estates, he said, which is a red tape nightmare of permissions.

Despite all that, Kapilow said the Bourgeois foundation has been very open to his project and allowed him to wander through the artist’s writings and recordings.

Kapilow often pairs a piece of art with a piece of music for a show, but this time he’s actually composing a new work.

“I did a series called The Music of Art. We’d perform right in front of the painting, for example a Steve Reich piece in front of a Mark Rothko and talk about the similarities that affected both. The same elements of minimalism in the zeitgeist get filtered through different mediums at the same time.”

These pairings also work to reveal meaning where the individual works might be inscrutable seen separately.

“Ironically this (Maman) project started 20 years ago,” he said when he was doing an outreach program in Kansas City with the St. Lawrence Quartet. Each month they would meet with small partner audiences (church groups, friends of a gallery).

Kapilow has a penchant to chat with people whenever he visits a city and this time, on the way into Kansas City from the airport, his cabbie said “there’s this horrible sculpture at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, it’s the worst thing I have ever seen.” This was a piece by Claes Oldenburg called Shuttlecocks.

Everyone in Kansas City had an opinion on the work, he said.

To get an audience for some What Makes It Great shows he was doing, he went on talk radio and he mentioned Shuttlecocks and asked the listeners “What would a piece of music based on Shuttlecocks sound like? We were deluged by phone calls.”

The gallery commissioned a piece from Kapilow and made it a very public consultation with the people of Kansas City. It was a massive success and eventually was performed on public radio on July 4, he said. Even the U.S. national badminton association was involved.

Fast-forward to Ottawa in 2017.

Chamberfest artistic director Roman Borys was blueskying with Kapilow on a project for the 25th anniversary of the festival and they hit upon the iconic Maman.

Last summer, the Chamberfest held a town hall and introduced the project to about 200 people in the auditorium and asked them what the music would be like? That erupted into a long conversation and that’s how it started.

The conversation changed what Kapilow was thinking about the piece, he said.

“Everyone said, of course it’s got to be an octet because of the eight legs of the spider. And that is what it will be.”

It will be for piano quintet: two violins, viola, cello, piano, clarinet, flute and percussion. The Gryphon Trio will be included. It will premiere at the 2019 festival.

He has sketched out “a bunch of it” based on some of the suggestions.

For example, people said that if it is about Maman, it’s not just about the sculpture but it’s also about the iconic location, which is on Sussex Drive as it merges with St. Patrick and Mackenzie Streets right across from Notre Dame Cathedral and with Parliament Hill in the near background.

That prompted a meeting with the Dominion Carillonneur, Andrea McGrady, who has become an enthusiastic participant in the project, Kapilow said.

The piece, as currently envisioned, will open with the Peace Tower bells and they are a recurring motif in various forms. Whether she’ll actually play during a performance depends on construction at the Centre Block. It might come down to a recording, he said. There are bells at Notre Dame and they’ll be part of the music too. Kapilow has also written into the work variations of songs from childhood such as Itsy Bitsy Spider and The Spinning Song.

They will also use a soundscape from the location that will be part of the performance. Some ambient sounds have been recorded by the Bedford Trio’s cellist Andrew Ascenzo including traffic noise, children playing and a tour guide. Ascenzo has also recorded a rough cut of the music to date. The Bedford’s are part of the project as well, Kapilow said. The trio is the recipient of a Career Development Residency with Chamberfest.

These sounds will be presented at a series of town halls over the next 10 days with different groups to talk about the project and the various components that are now emerging. The team will be in sessions with the Boys and Girls Club, teen art camps at the National Gallery, at the Centretown Film festival. These will continue over the course of the next year. He also said a Mother’s Day project involving children is being envisioned. Given the inspiration for Maman, that makes a lot of sense.

It would be tricky to perform the piece outdoors at the statue given the noise of the street, but Kapilow said the organizers are talking about it. “I would love to do that,” he said.

He has also set the quotation that opens this article to music for three female voices. Whether that makes the final version is a matter of some debate, he said.

In the end, development of the piece will answer the questions: “How do you take all the emotions that you have in your life about your parents, whatever that may be, and turn that into art in a meaningful way.”

In addition to Chamberfest’s 25th anniversary, 2019 is the 20th anniversary of the first Maman which is in the Tate Gallery in London and the 15th anniversary of the National Gallery’s purchase of its version.

He’s thinking that he will call the piece Après Maman because in the end it’s not really about the sculpture, it’s about reacting and engaging with the ideas behind Bourgeois’ piece.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.